Why normativity?

One of the main themes of my research is normativity. In this post, I want to provide something of a primer on normativity. Hopefully, this will go someway towards explaining why this is an issue we should take seriously and why normativity acts as a core concept for philosophers like myself. The immediate prompt to this post is the ongoing discussions between Levi and Pete, which keep running aground whenever normativity arises. Pete has set out the pertinent issues a number of times, but I thought it would be useful to approach them from my own perspective too, since a bit of triangulation might help us get a clearer sense of what is being said.

In short, normative issues concern correctness. Obviously, there’s many different senses of correctness and many different ways in which it arises as an issue. This helps to explain the tendency for normativity to to become a monolithic topic, which can seem to suck all philosophical light towards it like some supermassive body. One crucial distinction here though is between first-order normative inquiry and metanormative inquiry. I’ll explicate this in relation to some philosophically familiar topics.

In ethics, we are often asking what we ought to do — what would be good in the way of practical action. Should I give up philosophy and train to be a psychiatrist? Was it too callous to have decided not to meet your friend because you felt too drained to listen to their problems? Is a society without socialised medicine thereby unjust? These are first-order ethical questions, and they are normative because they are oriented by the question of how it is correct to act.

But we can also ask (as metaethicists do) about the metaphysics, epistemology and semantics involved. What does it mean to say I should do something? What is it for an action to be good? Is it possible to know whether I did the right thing? How? What, if anything, separates ethical demands from those of social etiquette? These are metanormative questions, also oriented by the notion of correctness in action, but which try to uncover what this notion of correctness amounts to. At its limit, it might even conclude that there is no sense in which actions are appropriate or inappropriate — they just are.

Similar distinctions between the first-order normative and the metanormative arise in other areas too. Another familiar example is deliberation about empirical facts and epistemology. Again, there are first-order matters: What is that animal? Would it be true to believe it is a chaffinich? Are physicists justified in believing that the Higgs boson exists? Do these problematic observations imply that the standard model of particle physics must be revised? These are normative matters, but only in the thin sense that they, arguably like all inquiry, are oriented by the question of what is good in the way of belief. The usual (and right) answer is that we should believe the truth, but we can also assess correctness along a number of other dimensions: justification, entitlement, inference, probabilifaction, consistency, coherence, accuracy, and so on.

One of the functions of epistemological inquiry is to examine the status of these first-order matters. What does it mean to say that we are not entitled to believe that P, even though P might turn out to be true? What is it for our perceptual beliefs to be justified? What is problemtic about inconsistency in belief? These questions have a metanormative dimension insofar as they abstract themselves from the immediate issue of what beliefs are good or bad along various dimensions in order to ask what any such assesments consist in.

The tentacles of normativity reach far and wide beyond these two examples too. We find them in the philosophy of language, where many have argued that meaning is normative insofar as terms have a correct and incorrect usage, and where the task is to flesh out this normative dimension to linguistic practice. The same goes for concepts and their conditions of application (alongside the murky notion of ‘mental content’ more generally) in the philosophy of mind. Aesthetics can be thought to be a discipline with a metanormative aspect too, especially when beauty and art are notions entangled up with endorsement, which a theory of aesthetic judgement may need confront. The theory of agency is another locus for normative issues, especially insofar many people (myself included) think that there is a distinctive logical form to action-explanation which needs to be articulated in relation to reasons in addition to brute causality. The list goes on… I certainly do not mean to endorse all these projects — I think many of them are misguided ventures — but merely to point to some of ways in which metanormative matters appear within contemporary philosophy.

Hopefully, it will now be clear that we can pitch normative inquiry at different levels. One worry that Levi has expressed is moralism: doesn’t an obsession with normativity lead us to fixate on judging people, weeding the unworthy from the worthy, and seeking to police people’s activity? With our distinction between first-order and metanormative inquiry in hand, we can respond by saying that focusing upon the normative does not necessarily betray a desire to be the judge of what is right and wrong. Instead, for philosophers interested in normativity, there is more often an attempt to understand the conditions under which assesments of correctness can succesfully be made at all and what the upshot of such assessments is. One way of articulating this is to say that we want to understand ‘the force of the better reason.’ I take this to be quite some distance from the right-wing obsession with ‘values’ that seems to be incensing Levi.

Another worry of Levi’s may be more pressing though: turning to norms can seem to be a turning away from the world. We can think of this in terms of a kind of ‘cognitive ascent’ which proceeds in two steps. First, there is a distinction between talking about the world and talking about our orientation towards the world. On one view, there are plenty of philosophically interesting features of the world to talk about — the structure of objects, the nature of causality, the individuation of social actors — and we should just get on and do that. Talking about norms is not talking about the world in this way: either it is talking about how we should talk about the world, and not plainly talking about the world; or it is talking about how we should act in the world, which is both tediously anthropocentric and still not talking about the great outdoors. Furthermore, there is a second ascent here too, since there is not only first-order normative inquiry but metanormative inquiry. It is either talking about how we should talk about how we should talk about the world, or it is talking about how we should talk about we should act in the world. The reassuring cruch of reality is thus even further from being underfoot.

In response, there a few things to be said. Firstly, I do take discussions of normativity to be about the world directly — they are no mere escape from it. I will be brief here because in a way this does not meet Levi’s worries head on. Nevertheless, whilst it may be démodé in some quarters to be concerned with rational agency as a distinctive phenomenon, I think it is a pressing descriptive task for which marshalling the vocabulary of normativity is essential. (See Pippin’s excellent piece and the surrounding discussion for more on this.) Beyond this, normativity is itself part of the world and is threaded throughout countless human practices. When McDowell gives us an account of virtue alongside the capacities, social practices and formative processes needed to make sense of our responsiveness to it, or when Brandom excavates the structure of the practice of giving and asking for reasons, they are talking about real phenomena which need to be elucidated. It is perhaps worth stressing that there needs to be nothing a priori about these normative investigations, even if figures like Habermas (and Pete for that matter) sometimes try to derive minimal rational norms in a quasi-transcendental fashion.

It is the intersection of metaphysics and normativity that seems to be worrying Levi here though. I am less enamored of constructive metaphysics than Levi or Pete, but I think the latter does a brilliant job of demonstrating the methodological role that metanormative inquiry should have within any such metaphysics. I can’t do better than his own exploration of these issues in this essay.

Finally, I want to underscore the possibility of detatching normativity from deontology. The latter understands normativity in terms of necessity imposed through legislation. In Kant’s practical philosophy, this is bound up with a system of duties and rights which takes a rigorist form that many people find both implausible and distateful. Indeed, Lukács tries to show how the Kantian subject, delineated through reference to an abstract set of duties, is the one presupposed by capitalism, being a reactionary ideological symptom of modern forms of exchange.

My own understanding of normativity, both in the practical and theoretical realm, has a more Aristotelian character to it. I do not take the reasons we have to stem from legislation but rather from the concrete situations we face as agents. Nor do I typically articulate rational requirements in terms of necessities imposed on us by reason. Instead, I help myself to the less austere vocabulary of the good as well as the right, and try to extend the concern with what one can do to who one should be as well. In addition to my own, there are innumerable other ways of approaching normativity too. It is important that this point be made in order to correct the assumption that recourse to normative themes is meant to bolster to some quasi-Kantian project, when this is certainly not always the case.

I could continue but that’s more than enough for now.

The Unconsoled Pursuit of Goodness

Iris Murdoch claims that pursuing goodness is “pointless.” She means that the attempt to act rightly, in accordance with virtue, say, cannot be given any external justification. In other words, such actions have no goal beyond themselves, however helpful they may happen to be. This echoes the Aristotelian dictum that virtuous action is undertaken for its own sake. In this case, an internal justification, which appeals to other ethical notions, would be available. So, we might recommend acting courageously because that would be the wise thing to do. But both courage and wisdom are already normative concepts: they are already replete with ethical normative authority. In this way, no attempt is made to justify specific ethical claims through appeal to non-ethical foundations. Ethical justification is presented as a closed circle.

One response to this kind of circularity would be to charge the Murdochian agent with dogmatism. This naturally leads to another suspicion, namely the sceptical doubt that if the only justifications for acting ethically are themselves already ethicised, then perhaps no genuine ethical justification is to be had. But such responses would be misguided; they reflect an unwarranted demand for foundations, for an Archimedean point outside of the activities of justifying, reasoning and communicating with one another, from where we can issue guarantees for them. Whether we are realists or not (and both myself and Murdoch are), demanding such guarantees is not cautious but pathological; in some lights, it verges on the autistic.

One of the problems met in attempting to give an external justification for genuinely following norms (rather than merely helpful conventions) is that it invites us to answer ill-formed questions. There is something incoherent about questions like ‘what reason do I have to be rational?’ or ‘should I do what I ought to do?’ when they are directed at normativity in general rather than the justification of specific norms. For any answer to these questions to move us, we must already be trading in reasons, which threatens to make any answer seem either hopelessly circular or entirely redundant.

We find a deep affinity here between these awkward questions, asking about a norm for following norms, or a reason to be rational, and the so-called problem of the ‘Kantian paradox’. If we create or legislate normative standards for our actions, there is a difficulty in finding norms for this legislation itself which would prevent this legislation from being enirely sporadic and arbitrary. In other words, we would already need norms to guide the institution of norms. Similar problems loom here to those above, since if there were already authoritative norms to appeal to then self-legislation will be redundant, but if there are not then no non-arbitrary legislation can be undertaken. The upshot, I think, is that self-legislation is an incoherent way to think about the ultimate source of normativity.

The Kantian paradox is significant, but unlike Kantian constructivisits, I think that the attempt to provide a straight solution to it is misguided. Instead, it provides us with an important clue to a structural feature of normativity, best accounted for by Murdoch’s considerations about the pointlessness of pursuing goodness. The lesson it teaches us is that there cannot be any justificatory grounding to normative authority which is not itself equally normative and equally groundless: it is normativity ‘all the way down.’ The lack of non-holistic support for normativity does not undermine the importance of normativity; in fact, it is quite the contrary. Pihlström makes this point well in relation to morality:

Morality does not have any external goal or legitimation. Yet, this, instead of sacrificing the moral seriousness emphasized by the moral realist, is an affirmation of such seriousness. Morality is something serious—indeed, the most serious and most important thing in our life, ‘overriding,’ as one often says—precisely because it does not have any external, non-ethical goal or point.

Bearing this claim in mind, one pertinent criticism of constructivism is that it offers the wrong kinds of reason to be moral (to re-purpose Bernard Williams’ expression). For example, when Korsgaard tells us that we should be moral because otherwise we will lose something more valuable than our lives, namely our identities as agents, morality is being anchored to some external goal. But this is to instrumentalise morality, to make it into a hypothetical imperative: if you want to protect an identity precious to you, then follow these instructions. In so doing, we lose our appreciation of the inherent worth of moral action, which sits alongside its subsidiary benefits to our lives, but is not entirely parasicitic upon them. One need not have as rigoristic a conception of ethical life as Kant to think that right action can be inherently worthy. Indeed, this style of criticism has been echoed by Bradley and Prichard (neither of whom were Kantians), who also think there is something wrongheaded about giving reasons to be moral in general.

Moral or ethical normativity is a distinctive variety, insofar as it often connected to the notions of the categorical and the obligatory. However, I think we can extend the same points about there being no external goal or point to being responsive to the force of the better reason, generalising them to normativity as a whole. Naturally, there can be many subsidiary benefits for agents who follow norms, whether this be the fruits of theoretical or practical reason, such as working out what to what will satisfy us and how to get it, for example. But Murdoch is right to emphasise that the true pursuit of the good is “austere and unconsoled.” What distinguishes responsiveness to normativity proper, rather than following useful conventions, is this discerning disregard for any immediate further goal. Normativity does not, in Murdoch’s vocabulary, come with the consolations of purposiveness beyond itself.

Autonomy, Normativity and Dependence

Autonomy is a kind of independence through self-governance. Kant was the most famous advocate of autonomy, thinking that it held the key to morality, though scores of other philosophers have thought it to be vitally important. It's one of those essentially contested concepts, though. People mean many different things by it — and this diversity seems not merely to be a product of linguistic dispute, but arguments over what sort of life is most worth living.

My conception of autonomy takes it to consist in being responsive to rationally authoritative norms. In short, we exercise an important sort of independence insofar as we manage to act upon reasons rather than any other contingent motivations we happen to be struck by. Here, what reasons we have are understood widely, and are not limited to the results of reflective inquiry: any rational actions could count, insofar as we've grasped what, if anything, we ought to do.

Constructivism about norms thinks that normative authority comes from correctly following procedures of practical reason. What we should do, ultimately, results from the structure of reason itself. Constructivists, taking their cue from a reading of Kant, also think that autonomy is important. Indeed, they think that autonomy somehow grounds normativity, providing internal criteria which broadly determine what we ought to do. This too involves the claim that freedom involves a kind of responsiveness to norms — those prescribed by the very structure of agents' practical reasoning and thus ones which are not externally imposed on the agent, and thus fit for expressing the agent's own autonomy. This is a sophisticated and ambitious kind of 'bootstrapping' strategy, as it is often called.

On the surface, it can seem that the shared commitment of myself and various constructivists to the idea that freedom is a form of normative responsiveness means that our views are substantively similar. However, my position with respect to normativity is a modest form of realism, whereby there is a kind of irreducibly normative authority of which people can become aware. In contrast, constructivism is a proceduralism which models normativity on the structures of a conception of democratic public reason. This is not what I want.

Instead, my variety of freedom as a kind of normative responsiveness is not one wherein we follow structural rules in order to achieve a legitimate outcome, but rather one in which we have a normative vision. (Ocular imagery is now deeply unfashionable in philosophy, but I think it ought to be reclaimed.) The point of the visual metaphor here is to emphasise that there is something there to be discovered, and its revelation to ourselves provides the backdrop against which we can act freely. So understood, being free requires us to see the world aright — understanding the significance of some situation which we are in, the requirements which it imposes upon us, whether or not we recognise them as ours. Acting upon this basis and within these bounds, with our eyes open and the particulars of the situation clear, including the nature of currents of motivation and the virtue and vices of different responses, provides us with a kind of autonomy. This is an ability to avoid being pushed around by brute forces and act with some purchase over ourselves. We thereby avoid being merely determined — the alternative is being influenced by factors whose significance is unclear, such that we have little basis for orienting ourselves and knowing what to pursue.

We may be unable, or just plainly fail, to resist unfavourable motivations or influences upon us. Even when fully aware of them and their true significance, this may still be so — the lure of the seedy desire, the satisfactions of high-handed moralism, may be too great — but this points to another sort of freedom: autocracy. This is the strength, favourable make-up, acuity or psychological agility to manage one’s psychology so as to execute a sense of what ought to be done. Autonomy and autocracy form a distinction but not a dualism: often knowing what to do is best conceived as a hands-on practical activity, where we are not guided by a clear intention nor criteria reflectively arrived at.

Autonomous agency, especially when put forward as an ideal, has often seemed retrograde though. It seems to hark back to the patriarchal ideals of the eighteenth century bourgeois: the rugged individual, independent and beholden to no-one who he does not choose to contract with in his own self-interest. Obviously, this is an ideological fiction: as a description of the conditions of any recognisably human life, which are ineliminably social, and always contain some moments of radical dependence, such as in childhood, sickness and infirmity; and as an ideal, with its autistic disregard for genuine communication, non-self-interested openness to the needs of others, and so on.

In implicitly endorsing autonomy then, it must be recalled that this is balanced through its entwinement with a conception of normative vision. So, we are not faced with egoism, and certainly not as an ideal. All sorts of things, people and situations make demands upon us and otherwise bend normative space in ways that we ought to respond to beyond our self-interest. On my conception of autonomy, failure to see this is a paradigmatic abrogation of freedom: fully free acts are those taken in as much awareness of their significance as possible.

Still, isn’t autonomy taken as an ideal in a problematic way? Egoism may fall by the wayside, but don’t other types of independence enter here as putatively valuable without justification? For example, it can seem that the influence of institutions, traditions and our peers are hastily too disdained, whereby it is ourselves who must pronounce upon right and wrong, whereby they are treated as mere interference. However, this charge would neglect two further features of my view.

Firstly, there is a role for second nature, as the training and conditioning which we all acquire in our development. In other words, we need to understand normativity in the context of the educative formation of people. This will involve acquiring and then being able to refine the skills of language use, empirical perception, coalescing of an emotional character and cognitive inquiry which are vital to being able to make the kinds of discriminations necessary to see the world in its full normative significance. Fully formed human agents are not possible without the nurtured and guided development which social forms such as institutions and traditions enable.

Secondly, often it will be difficult or impossible to exercise such skills without the concrete help or input of others. There may be more or less empirical cases of this. For example, there are inquiries so big as to be impractical if undertaken alone, as with many scientific projects. Or else, loneliness may retard our emotional health, leaving us unable to calibrate and hone our reactions. There are also cases where dialogical interaction seems integral. For example: intervening in an academic debate, in the humanities, say, where it is important that you are responding to ways of looking at the world which conflict with your own conception, going beyond your own horizons and ‘prejudices’. So, there may be various kinds of prompting from others which the social world affords us, and which enable us to get a better grip on the world, including its normative significance. This helps realise and sustain the skills which socially-mediated Bildung endows.

So, I think it is possible to advocate autonomy without falling into the ideological traps which have doubtless motivated many of its champions. We can accomodate varieties of dependence within the normative landscape which autonomy, as I conceive it, must be parasitic on. In this way, dependence becomes a condition of independence. The lesson here is that any attempt to think of autonomy as an ‘inner citadel’, an existentialist leap of willing, or an egoistic rugged individualism, ought to be challenged by the advocate of autonomy themselves.

Ethics and the Moral Law, Part III: Paul and Psychoanalysis

In this final post, I want to explore a psychoanalytic interpretation of St. Paul, developing suggestions by Slavoj Žižek amongst others as to how Paul can be read in this fashion. One way to frame this approach is in terms of this question: what, if anything, constitutes the distinctiveness of moral norms? One answer to that question would be to say that they are individuated by being categorically binding on us, holding irrespective of our desires or projects. The way of taking Paul outlined here would warn against dangers attendant to this conception of moral norms which, in setting up an inflexible standard against which we are judged, leads to unproductive results: namely, a psychic economy ruled by the principle of guilt which encourages us to remain submerged in an unhealthy obsession with our own transgressions of law. As he is presented here, Paul seeks to retain the spirit of an engagement with law—the sanctity of the content of what the law demands—while avoiding the problematic effects of the unconditional injunctions that are imposed through the articulation of this spirit in law. To borrow a phrase from Hegel, his aim is thus taken to be “to strip laws of legality, of their legal form.”

All this raises the question of why, if law is so problematic, it arises in the first place. It is often claimed that moral norms have a special role in regulating our relationship with others. A framework of moral norms introduces a common reference point to allow for planning and co-ordination of actions, especially amongst strangers, as well as supporting valuable behaviour such as reciprocity. Insofar as these norms are articulated in laws—whose formal properties introduce universality and unconditionality to them—then this adds a further measure of stability, increasing the degree and predictability of responsiveness to them. Žižek’s explanation of the origin of law takes this to be important, though not for simple prudential reasons, but rather because it helps erase the traumatic contingency present in the actions of others:

the advent of Law entails a kind of ‘disalienation': in so far as the Other itself appears submitted to the ‘absolute condition’ of Law, the subject is no more at the mercy of the Other’s whim, its desire is no more totally alienated in the Other’s desire … it opens our access to desire by enabling us to disengage ourselves from the rule of the Other’s whim.

So, the specific problem of negotiating our relation to others calls for a system of law that makes obedience unconditional, seeking to dissociate compliance from our whims. Yet this creates a new problem, for the nature of the injunctions imposed is superegoic. As Jodi Dean explains this aspect of law:

This traumatic, senseless injunction is also the psychoanalytic notion of the superego. Superego issues unconditional commands, telling us what to do, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing even to consider our specific circumstances, needs, or desires.

Here we find a description that seems to be of a piece with morality as construed categorically.

A misconception that it would be easy to arrive at would be to suppose that, insofar as we accept there is a superegoic dimension to law—some oppressive moment within it such that we are brutalised by an insistent challenge to fulfil a set of absolute demands—then Paul’s problem with law would be that it leads to such a stark and demanding task for us. However, matters are more complex given the superego’s equally important ties to enjoyment which arise in two ways. Firstly, the absolute injunctions of the superego are not just occasions for guilt, for there can be a perverse satisfaction in the very act of renouncing one’s ‘official’ desires. Examples of this narcissistic attachment to asceticism abound, from the stereotype of the old Irish woman who is prepared to go to preposterous lengths to accommodate the smallest desires of her guests, to the Nazis described by Arendt who got a kick out of committing acts they genuinely considered to be disgusting and unspeakable but were carried out all in the name of the greater good of the Fatherland. Secondly, one of the injunctions of the superego is itself ‘Enjoy!’, such that we can find ourselves feeling guilty and inadequate if we do not squeeze every drop of satisfaction out of our leisure time, if our social calendar is not brimming over with enticing engagements, and so on. Thus, the superego stands in a complex relation that ties together both guilt and enjoyment. So, on the one hand we have the public moral law whose presuppositions are that although we may find enjoyment in transgressing the law, we will feel guilty if we do. However, the peculiar logic of the superego means that our attitude to the public law is accompanied by an ‘obscene’ underside such that we can equally find enjoyment in renouncing our desires and not transgressing the law, and so too we can feel guilty if we do not follow through on our desires and fail to break the law.

Along these lines, the problem for Paul might then be construed not simply as the fact that we are averse to the weighty impositions of the law but rather that we are simultaneously too attached to them in other respects. Not only does law prohibit sin, it orders our psychic life around what is forbidden—sin becomes a structure for organising one’s enjoyment, which given the haywire network of relations between duty, transgressions of the law, guilt and enjoyment, makes the sinful at once abhorrent and desirable. The way to escape this problem would be to find a way of carrying out the task of the law, which is to manage interpersonal relations, while suppressing the ‘obscene’ underside to law.

Žižek’s suggestion as to what Paul’s solution to this problem is picks up on Paul’s opposition of the law to love. We are to be reconciled to our neighbour by loving them as themselves. Žižek opposes other modes of reconciliation to this model, most notably any approach that tries to bridge the gap between me and others based on the rights of the other. As Dean puts it:

The symbolic neighbour is the abstract subject of rights. Here my respect is ultimately my respect for law, my sense of duty to the law. And this of course reconnects me to my complex relationship to law, my enjoyment of law as well as the enjoyment I get from transgressing it.

Paul’s solution is supposed to be a recommendation to embrace one’s neighbour in their very giveness—including their strangeness, unintelligibility, wickedness, and so on—and not as an abstract subject whose place is delineated by law.

Given that we now begin to relate to our neighbour outside of the framework of law, does this mean that we can simply transgress the law? Perhaps the best way of taking Paul here would be as saying that by radically refusing to interact at a disengaged level, willing only to do one’s duty, to contribute no more than what is due, our relations with people are no longer appropriately measured by the yardstick of law. No doubt we will end up conforming to what the law would have required of us if we fully embrace the maxim of love for one’s neighbour. However, the mode of engagement with the world that made talk of law intelligible will have been superseded—it will be ill-fitting and, moreover, even judging oneself at all by the old standard of law, even if not cleaving to it, risks rehabilitating an unhealthy relation to the notion of sinfulness.

Ethics and the Moral Law, Part II: Saint Paul

This is the second post on law and its place within ethics. Here I examine St. Paul’s thoughts on these matters. I should add that I am not too familiar with many of the details of Paul, so please look kindly on any errors or omissions.

The context of Paul’s writing

Although Paul has been subject to political and philosophical appropriation, we ought to keep in mind the religious context of his extant writings. His letters are written to fledgling Christian communities, variously intended to counsel, cajole and console their immediate readers on religious affairs and matters of communal conduct that are entwined with these. They are not primarily theoretical treatises but rather practical interventions undergirded by an implicit framework threaded through Paul’s thought that must often be inferred by piecing together the apparent presuppositions of disparate sections of text. This means that in trying to discern a relatively consistent Pauline position we are often confronted with ambiguities to resolve as to the scope of what Paul says—whether and how far it is intended to carry beyond the particularities of the specific context that surrounds it, and if his thought remains viable when so extended. I shall mention two of these ambiguities that we should take into account.

Firstly, we are concerned with Paul’s thought on law, but given the religious context there are two sets of possibilities to consider as to what ‘law’ amounts to and whether its meaning remains consistent throughout. One way of taking Paul is as questioning the Abrahamic law of the Jews, one tied to them in their particularised status as the people of the covenant, and thus a law that is not truly universal. Alternatively, it may be the very form of law in general that Paul is questioning, whether truly universal or not. So too, we might take whatever law it is in question as being a narrowly religious matter, important insofar as it affects our relationship with the divine. Or instead, we might conceive the law as pertinent in its relationship to a richer ethical conception of the good of which the divine may be an integral component but not of exclusive importance, being supplemented by the value deriving from a properly ordered relationship towards ourselves and others. This also leads us to the second question as to the scope of Paul’s thought. That is, how far it is dependent upon his soteriological concerns, which for us becomes the following question: do viable philosophical positions remain when we subtract Paul’s conviction that Jesus is the Son of God? Both these issues—over the meaning of ‘law’ and the centrality of soteriology—I merely wish to flag here as something that we should recall throughout. Given the particular approaches to Paul considered here, the assumption will be that (unless otherwise stated) the law in question is universal and of relevance to wider ethical matters. The soteriological elements of Paul’s thought will be touched upon in the following section.

Pauline biblical scholarship and the Law

Modern biblical scholarship on the question of Paul’s attitude towards law can be divided into two main camps. Each finds Paul to have a different problem with the law (either Judaic or universal). We can briefly characterise them as follows. Until the late nineteen-seventies, a Lutheran perspective on Paul’s treatment of law was orthodox. It takes Paul’s problem with law to be its tendency to encourage an attitude that overemphasises works to the detriment of faith: the notion that salvation is primarily a matter of external practice rather than our subjective comportment towards the divine and the mercy of God. The so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’ has challenged this diagnosis of Paul’s criticism of law, claiming instead that the problem with law is, as it is often put, simply that it is not Christ. This Christological interpretation of Paul is variously finessed by commentators, but a common core is constituted by the idea that the law has been fulfilled, in the sense of supplanted, by the resurrection—this event making the law redundant, or at least marginal. Here, I shall concentrate on the first approach outlined.

What I have called broadly ‘Lutheran’ interpretations give a central place to the idea that a fixation on law will give rise to a misplaced works-righteousness. There are several ways of taking this criticism of law.

Firstly, we may think that it proclaims a simple doctrinal error that is liable to lead the Christian astray. The problem with conceiving law as integral to salvation would be that it attributes duties as a condition of being saved, whereas a Lutheran protestant will affirm that the Christian is ‘justified by faith alone’. This is not a problem with law per se, only its relation to salvation. For it is quite consistent to suppose that we are subject to the authority of law (whether particularised or universal) and even that this is a good thing, only that our soteriological standing swings freely of matters of law—even religiously sourced laws—being secured by our faith alone. Thus, it seems that not much light is thrown on the role of law from these considerations. A second way of taking the criticism that law encourages a misplaced works-righteousness is to suppose that there is a contrast being drawn between the righteousness secured by our doing the work mandated by law and the righteousness to be found in God. The problem with law identified here would be that it nurtures a prideful attitude that focuses upon one’s personal achievement in carrying out the demands of the law. For if salvation is conceived primarily as a matter of our relation to the dictates of law, of meeting a fixed criterion, then we could be thought to be insufficiently humble inasmuch as we are led to conceptualise it as product of human labour rather than bestowed by God—something that disregards the gift of God’s grace. Again, as a freestanding critique of the role of law then this is not hugely enlightening.

However, if we probe a little deeper into the assumptions behind these positions we can make some progress. For we can ask why it is that the Lutheran thinks that we can only be justified by faith alone and that confidence in law would be misplaced and sinful in its pride. What lies behind both these positions is a fundamental pessimism about humanity’s capacity to do good and thus somehow earn their salvation instead of being dependent on divine dispensation. Our only hope is justification by faith since we cannot achieve it on our own, and from this it also follows that trusting in human dutifulness to the law as a means of salvation is a vain overestimation of our own powers. Of particular philosophical interest here is the belief that it is not so much man’s appetitive weakness that is to blame—that we will inevitably transgress the law through our susceptibility to the temptations of sin—but rather that it is our reason that is deficient. What we are incapable of doing is determining what the law requires, our post-lapsarian state leaving us with an insufficient capacity to work out the ends proper to man, the law that we are subject to in connection with these ends and the correct application of this law in concretio, without the intervention of God’s grace at every step.

One way of extracting a philosophical lesson from this purportedly Pauline insistence upon fide sola is to notice its implications for the relation between the right and the good. We can frame this matter through the claim that the view of Paul presented is an anti-constructivist one. Constructivist accounts of a discourse (say, ethics or science, etc.) take the truth-value of the propositions that compose it to be a function of correctly following a certain procedure in reasoning to these propositions; there is no anterior fact of the matter divorced from the procedure. For example, a scientific constructivist might explicate the truth of a physical theory by saying that all it means to say that the theory is true is that the scientific method was correctly followed in formulating it, where this method would be constituted by a set of rules pertaining to standards for the collection of data, allowable inferences from this data, coherence with other well-established theories, and so on. Note the relation this establishes between the ends of a constructive procedure and the principles that make up this procedure. Ordinarily, we take norms for action to be answerable to our goals—what recommends following a certain procedure is that allows us to achieve some end that is of prior value; indeed, we appraise such norms based on their success in this respect. Those who are constructivist with respect to a certain domain reverse this relationship in that they take potentially correct ends to be delimited by a set of authoritative principles governing action. In other words, they privilege the right (that mandated by some set of rules governing obligations and permissions) over the good (the proper ends of ourselves or our practices); in conjunction with ‘materials of construction’ (what the constructive procedure is applied to), the former will determine the latter. 

Paul might be taken to be criticising views that give such a primacy to the right on two counts. In warning us about giving too much weight to law, alongside a pessimistic view of human reason (which it must be said is hard to discern in Paul’s text without independent Lutheran assumptions), Paul’s criticism of works-righteousness could be construed along the following lines. If it is following the law that secures salvation (where we might substitute the achievement of ethical good for salvation), then we must be able to grasp this law and apply it correctly in concretio for it is only by correctly following the procedure set out by the norms encoded in the law that we are able to secure salvation. However, since human reason is deficient in its ability to correctly understand and apply the law on its own, we must rely on the grace of God if we are to carry out the work of the law. So, even if at an explanatory level we suppose that the right (in the form of the law) determines the good (in the form of the meritorious works that secure our salvation) it would be wrong to take up an attitude of righteousness with respect to works of law-following. This is because at the level of practical action we cannot achieve the right—we cannot first follow the procedure correctly–-if we do not have the faith that makes us receptive to grace which allows us to enact the law. Thus, it will always be an error to fixate on the law, for without humbly turning away from the question of our own righteousness, of our place as measured against the criterion of the law, in order to stand in God’s righteousness (a move away from being concerned with our own value and toward a faithful conviction in God’s) we are unable to grasp the law at all. An initial disregard for the law thus becomes a condition of following it at all.

If we try to translate this into a more secular critique though, we face some problems. For example, why should we accept scepticism about the power of reason if we can no longer in good faith indulge in the jouissance provided by self-abasing Protestant stories about the post-lapsarian feebleness of humanity? Perhaps if, in a Humean fashion, we thought that the legitimate role of reason was merely instrumental, not itself setting ends but merely devising means. Given such a model, we might share the suspicion over our ability to successfully reason about the law, for we might think that reason had no substantive role to play in discovering or directing our proper ends. Thus, taken simply by itself, reasoning about the principles embodied in the law would have no claim to be able to determine what we ought to do. As independently unattractive as such a conception of reason is anyway, the Lutheran-Pauline position is even more sceptical about the powers of reason than this though. For the proponent of a merely instrumental reason would accept that we could adopt the principles of the law for some further reason (a desire to please God, say, not simply reasoning to them for their own sake). Yet, the Lutheran- Pauline position would maintain that we could not even follow the law in this instance, since their scepticism extends to our ability to ascertain the correct application of the law, utilising it even when we have decided that it is fitting for us to adopt it. It is hard to motivate such a pessimistic conception of reason when divorced from a religious setting.

Perhaps we can make something of the warning about an excessive fixation on law though. For although we can read the Lutheran-Pauline position as being one that announces our utter dependence upon the mercy of God, that human effort is insufficient to achieve salvation, we can also see it as containing a lesson about the subjective attitude that we should take towards law. So instead of seeing our ability to correctly follow the norms embodied in law as dependent on the de facto dispensation of grace from God, we might see the structure of our attitude towards God as the real achievement that allows us to correctly follow the law. The idea here would be that in privileging faith over law we can discern a schema that can be applied outside a narrowly religious context. For we can understand Paul’s talk of faith (pistis) as the hopeful waiting upon grace (kharis), but take this to be a placeholder for the wider need for a certain openness—receptivity—to something beyond the law. We are still dealing here with a supplemental approach to the law, one that denies that we can just follow the law by straightforwardly understanding its dictates, but the locus for this necessary supplement to law would no longer have to be a divine one.

A secularised way of taking Paul along these lines could develop the thought that salvation cannot simply be earned by the mechanical adoption of some procedure derived from law. We might think that a narrow concern with meeting the letter of the law will miss its true purpose, ignoring what it is that animates it and makes it valuable at all (whether this be God or the achievement of human good). Thus, we risk tacitly treating law as itself constitutive of the good, as an end in itself, rather than an instrument to achieve our true ends. This is not an epistemic matter of, as it were, simply recalling in the abstract that the law serves a purpose beyond itself. Rather, if the law is to function as an instrument, we should attend to both its final purpose and what it is instrumentally applied to. Conceived as an instrument for achieving ethical good rather than salvation, in the schema previously outlined we can substitute an openness to grace (to direction by God) for an openness to secular factors which can guide our application of the law in concretio. As in the religious case, this will supplement the necessarily relatively ‘thin’ directives of the law with a ‘thicker’ method that can help guide us in what to do in actual practice.

One suggestion as for a secular factor able to play this role, substituting for pistis in Paul, would be enculturation—the habituation into a social tradition that allows us to recognise certain reasons as compelling. This would be a more intelligible variety of influence on our ability to apply the law, rather than being a mysterious openness to grace so as to receive a measure of God’s ‘maker’s knowledge’ of the law, it would reflect an attunement to the social ground that provides the context in which the function of the law, in enabling us to achieve certain goods, becomes intelligible. In this way, by supplementing a tight focus on the letter of the law alone—one that sees only a list of demands divorced from their rationale—with the resources required to reach a richer understanding of the tasks animating it, it should be possible to apply the law more adeptly.

Ethics and the Moral Law, Part I: Anscombe

Larval Subjects has a good post up on deontological ethics. I am sympathetic to some of his antinomian sentiments, though I often find myself drifting back and forth between Aristotle and Kant in ethics (being the good Hegelian that I am). I’ve written a little bit about law-conceptions of ethics and their critics, and thought this would be a timely opportunity to post some of the results. This first post will deal with Elizabeth Anscombe and the second will move onto Saint Paul. Readers interested in this topic might also want to have a look at this previous post on Hegel and laws or this one on Anscombe and MacIntyre.

Modern Moral Philosophy

At the centre of Anscombe’s attack on modern moral philosophy, set out in her classic paper of the same name, is the concept of moral obligation. Part of the reason that her treatment of this concept is of interest is that she is sensitive to the historical grounds of its employment, noting the context in which it arose and became a fundamental notion for modern moral thought in an attempt to show that only under certain conditions–ones that are no longer widely believed to hold–is it coherent to speak of an emphatically moral obligatoriness.

Here I want to question the historical narrative that Anscombe presents us with, arguing that it may be problematic on two counts. These potential difficulties will be explored with reference to the religious elements of her account, where the divine law is invoked as the only viable way of construing moral obligation. The second of the worries I shall highlight is that she overlooks the diversity of thought within what she calls the “Hebraic-Christian ethic.” For Anscombe is too hasty insofar as she tacitly ascribes a relative unity to Christian thought in supposing that such thought should be seen as going hand in hand with the view that morality is seen as originating in divine law. But before addressing this point, another objection to her historical narrative will be considered-one that promises to be more threatening to her positive project-which claims that, even within the tradition of those who have believed morality to stem from divine law, Anscombe mischaracterises the way this has been conceived. Firstly though, some of the relevant main features of Anscombe’s strategy will be outlined briefly.

Anscombe’s strategy

Anscombe’s paper opens with a statement of three theses, the second of which will concern us here:

the concepts of obligation, and duty-moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say-and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of ‘ought’, ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.

Here we see the historical dimension to Anscombe’s thought: emphatic moral concepts once made sense given the context of an earlier ethics, but without such a context they no longer do, becoming confused and out of joint to the extent that our use of them is actually harmful. The context that the emphatically moral sense of ‘ought’ arose from, and in which it is thought to have its natural home, is that of a law conception of ethics. Thus, ‘ought’ gained a moral sense in certain circumstances that was synonymous with the sort of requirement or obligation that one could be said to be subject to through coming under the authority of a law. Anscombe claims that it acquired such a special sense (that is, one in addition to the sense of ‘ought’ in which to say that a machine ought to be oiled means that it is liable to break otherwise) through the enormous influence of Christianity. For it had a law conception of ethics that understood what it is to be ‘bad qua human’ to be a failure connected with falling short of a divine law.

Given this diagnosis, it is not immediate apparent what Anscombe’s strategy is. As is suggested by the quote above and by other sections of her paper, it might simply be to drop talk of the moral ‘ought’ altogether, reverting to what Williams calls ‘thick’ moral concepts, such as justice or honesty. This rejection of the moral ‘ought’ would be premised upon the unsustainability of the law conceptions of ethics without which it loses its meaning. Anscombe certainly is disparaging of modern attempts to rehabilitate the notion of an ethics of law, like certain understandings of Kantian self-legislation. Yet Anscombe was herself a Christian who held to the divine law, so where does that leave her position? It seems that it should be read as an attack on the incoherence of those who employ emphatic moral concepts yet themselves lack an adequate law conception of ethics that would make these concepts intelligible. For her then, a law conception of ethics is not untenable in itself, but only insofar as it is divorced from the support of a religious framework. The crucial phrase in her second thesis comes when she says that emphatic moral concepts ought to be jettisoned because they are derived from “an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives.” Recognising the de facto decline of a religious moral culture in favour of a secular one, Anscombe would be warning against importing concepts that only make sense in the first tradition into the latter climate where, without the necessary framework guiding their use, then they are bound to become mangled and perverted, as she thinks happened in the post-Sedgwick English tradition. So, whilst herself holding onto a Catholicised Thomism that combines law and virtue, she would be recommending a non-divinised virtue ethics for those unwilling to embrace a religious ethics.

Obligation and law

Having now outlined some aspects of Anscombe’s argumentative strategy, the first potentially problematic feature of Anscombe’s position that I want to consider stems from her treatment of the concept of law. In doing so, I want to pick up on the unease that has been expressed to a greater or lesser extent in different places with respect to the details of how she seems to understand this concept, its relations to those such as commandment and its place in the Christian tradition. One way to begin to articulate concern with Anscombe’s position in this respect would be to focus on her idea that emphatic moral concepts have lost their roots: their connection to a tradition that both illuminates them and endows the moral ‘ought’ with a meaning over and above what she calls that of “a word of mere mesmeric force.” For Anscombe’s suggestion as to how they lost their grounding, through the loss of their connection to the religious framework of divine legislation, highlights a potentially problematic understanding of what moral obligatoriness amounts to. This is one that both can appear independently unattractive and also at best marginal within the very Christian tradition that it is meant to be representative of.

Thomas Pink claims: “For a virtuous action not only to be virtuous, but actually to be morally obligatory, in Anscombe’s view, just is for that action to be commanded of us by a moral law-giver.” If this is what it means to be morally obligatory, then continuing to talk in terms of this emphatic moral obligation in the absence of the inferentially constitutive concepts of God, divine authority, commands that are promulgated to us, and so on, is liable to lead to some confusion. It is certainly something along these lines that Anscombe is getting at when she says, “It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten.” Yet, is this what moral obligation means, either now or even at the height of theories of divine law in the late Middle Ages? Here we might question two aspects of the definition of moral obligation. Firstly, we can ask a question implicit in Pink’s work, is moral obligation reducible to the dictates of the divine law? Secondly, as Onora O’Neill hesitantly wonders in connection to Anscombe, is divine law here actually understood as divine command?

There clearly is a Christian tradition that locates the source of moral obligation in God and whose proponents are often referred to as ‘divine command theorists.’ Yet, this does not mean that for them moral obligation simply is divine command or legislation–that the former is semantically or explanatorily inexplicable without reference to the second. We can quite consistently suppose that all moral obligation has its source in God’s dictates while explaining what moral obligation is, or taking it as primitive, in a way that makes it independent of the divine. This is to say that the concept of moral obligation can be distinct from the concept of what is divinely dictated, even if moral obligation happens to arise through divine command or legislation. For it may be that coming to be morally obligated to do something requires certain conditions to be fulfilled–whether that is being commanded to do so by God, being the action that maximises utility, etc.–yet the moral obligatoriness does not have to be identified with its cause; the moral obligation is the normative claim upon us, and this we do not have to identify with the authoritative structures that generate this claim on us. This line of thought cautions against the potential category error of simply equating an object or event (e.g. God commanding you to do x) with the normative power it gives rise to (e.g. the moral obligation to x), for even if it is the former that give rise to the latter this does not mean that the latter are no more than the former. Thus, it may seem that Anscombe would have to do more to bridge the gap between moral obligation and divine dictates if she is to show that moral obligation becomes incoherent when removed from a religious framework, with it lacking some sort of independent basis.

The second question raised asks about Anscombe’s understanding of law. She often uses ‘law’ and ‘command’ in a seemingly interchangeable way, but does this accompany a deeper conflation of the concepts of law and command? O’Neill expresses the suspicion that Anscombe actually thought in terms of divine command when claiming to be discussing divine legislation, ignoring the crucial formal differences between laws and commands, instead treating divine law as fiat. But what is characteristic of laws is their universality, something O’Neill expresses by saying that they “prescribe for all cases within their scope.” We might think of this in Kantian terms, as no doubt O’Neill is predisposed to, whereby this universality characteristic of law is important insofar as its moral function is to confront the temptation to make an exception in one’s own case. Transfigured into a religious dimension this might become an insistence on law so as to oppose something like the following thought, ‘Ordinarily doing this would be wrong, but God has special plans for me that require me to do it.’

Evidence that O’Neill points to so as to demonstrate this lack of awareness of the distinct formal structure of laws is Anscombe’s focus upon the source of law, this being her only objection to those who advance law conceptions of ethics without a divine element. To expand upon O’Neill’s hints, perhaps a good example of this is Anscombe’s brutally swift dismal of Kantian self-legislation:

Kant introduces the idea of ‘legislating for oneself’, which is as absurd as if in these days, when majority votes command great respect, one were to call each reflective decision a man made a vote resulting in a majority, which as a matter of proportion is overwhelming, for it is always 1-0. The concept of legislation requires superior power in the legislator.

Yet this rather misses the point, for with respect to the notion of self-legislation the emphasis is very much on the legislation rather than the role of the self (O’Neill may demur at this point). What is important here is not the misleading picture of the agent that somehow binds or outvotes itself, but rather the fact that the agent is following maxims with the formal structure of laws, stripped of all partiality. In following these rationalised maxims, ones where no unjustifiable exceptions are made simply because it is I who is acting, we act in a way proper to being whose nature is itself infused with rationality, with the laws thus no longer being alien impositions: this is the self-legislative component.

Anscombe shows little sensitivity to the formal universality of laws, here or elsewhere. Her focus is upon the source of law, which she thinks must be divine if it is to be sufficiently authoritative, appears indifferent to the fact it is law under discussion at all. This seems to prevent her from appreciating some of attractions of the key alternative law conceptions of ethics that are relatively independent of a divine legalism. So, given that Anscombe thinks that emphatic moral concepts only make sense when allied to a law conception of ethics, of a legalistic sense of right and wrong, then it may seem little wonder that she is eager to recommend rejecting talk of the emphatic moral ‘ought’ for those who wish to adhere to a secular ethics. Yet, as we have seen, even the divine command tradition itself, not to mention other strains of Christian thought, does not seem to provide her with unambiguous support. This is because the implications of Anscombe’s second thesis may seem to require that the emphatic moral concepts are prone to be deployed incoherently outside of a divine command conception of ethics because all there is to moral obligation is to be divinely commanded, whereas it seems we could employ an independent notion of moral obligation, as someone like Suarez purportedly does. Arguably, this is not a decisive objection though insofar as we may think that even with some understanding of what moral obligation would amount to outside of the explanatory framework of a divine law conception of ethics, there would be still be systematic pressures disposing us to incoherent moral judgements insofar as we would still be unable to make sense of the source of moral obligation since secular ethics will not appeal to God as legislator and will require some as yet unproven stand-in. In this situation, we may be best advised to explore the aretaic alternatives like Anscombe suggest.

St. Paul and Hegel

Here, in this section I want to pick up on what it is a surprising omission from Anscombe’s account given her Christian convictions, even given the polemical style of her paper. This is that there is next to no consideration of anti-legalistic conceptions of ethics from those within the Christian tradition. Her references to ‘Hebraic-Christian’ thought occlude not just minor cosmetic differences amongst religious thinkers about the relation between law, morality and the divine but also radical disagreements over the relation of these three notions. Here, I shall briefly point to two such thinkers, Saint Paul and Hegel–hardly insignificant figures.

Paul had good reason to confront a law conception of ethics inasmuch as it was a pressing political issue within the early Church. The evangelising that Paul dedicated his attention to was faced with a pressing practical problem, one that required Paul to devise a theoretical, but no less concrete, solution. (Here we can see why Paul’s reputation amongst Marxists as the Lenin of Christianity is well deserved!) The problem concerned the issue of whether new initiates into the Church should be required to hold to the Abrahamic law; a matter that crystallised over whether they ought to be circumcised or not. Paul was torn between placating Jewish Christians who were predominantly in favour of a hardline adherence to the Jewish law and the Gentile Christians who were not eager to adopt a strange new set of legalistic injunctions.

It can be tempting to read this debate as one with a narrow relevance, of a dispute over the merely particularised traditional law of the Jews and so of little relevance to our concerns, those of the moral law in general. However, this would be a mistake. This is because Paul stresses throughout his letters that what is at stake in this conflict is Christian identity as such, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. Condensed in this opposition is not the particular ethnicised law of the Jews against its rejection; rather, it is the opposition between particular law and the universal ‘cosmic’ law. In rejecting the disjunction of Jew or Gentile, in saying neither/nor, Paul thus rejects law in general. Or rather, he asserts the priority of love over law, which it is tempting to read as akin to an assertion of the priority of the good over the right. Paralleling this subsumption of law under love is one that similarly subsumes duty under grace (kharis): one is not redeemed by works, one cannot ‘earn one’s due’ that way. So, rather than the divine acting as a source of legislation as in Anscombe, Paul thus marginalises any legalistic obligatoriness more forcefully than she does. Although all this is articulated in a religious mode, Paul is rather paradoxically in many ways a stridently secular thinker; at least, he has been easily appropriated by some materialists in this spirit. For obvious reasons though, he is not a central figure in moral philosophy, despite his relevance to issues such as the law conception of ethics and although much of his thought is deep and tacitly argumentative enough to merit it.

Finally then, we can go on to consider Hegel as another anti-legalistic thinker who remains in the Christian tradition, but again whose opposition to a law conception of ethics is somewhat different than Anscombe’s critique. The Philosophy of Right does have a place for moral laws within the structures of Sittlichkeit, though arguably in a muted and secondary role. Here though, I shall maintain the religious theme by considering Hegel’s early theological writings, which attack law conceptions of ethics in an even more polemical fashion than Anscombe.

Of particular relevance here is the extended, unpublished essay, ‘The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate.’ This represents Hegel’s first extended reckoning with Kant and in which the latter’s legalism along with his formalism is indicted. The hero of the tale, who Hegel often opposes to Kant, is Jesus. This is a Jesus who is a radically anti-legalistic figure, as can be seen from a representative passage:

The spirit of Jesus, a spirit raised above morality, is visible, directly attacking laws, in the Sermon on the Mount, which is an attempt, elaborated in numerous examples, to strip laws of legality, of their legal form.

The morality that Jesus is said to be above here is, of course, Kantian Moralität; and the problem with this morality is ineluctably entwined with its articulation in laws to which we are obligated. More fully, this problem is the split that Hegel sees it as nurturing within the subject between reason and inclination, divisively setting two aspects of the subject into conflict.

Hegel’s solution is, unsurprisingly, a complex one but as with Paul there is no straightforward rejection of law. Rather, in a deeply Pauline fashion, Hegel appeals to the fulfilment (πλήρωμα) of law through love: one that, so to speak, suspends its letter in the name of its spirit. The full details would take us too far afield, so all I wish to note are the deep affinities between these two Christian-centric critiques of law conceptions of the ethical. This makes it all the more strange that Hegel never explicitly mentions Paul. Nevertheless, my closing suggestion is that they might be profitably read together against Anscombe as anti-legalistic thinkers who take this opposition to law to be at the very essence of the Christian tradition and not a melancholy necessity imposed by its decline.

Philosophy as Bildung

In a recent post, I claimed that we ought to defend a form of philosophical humanism. By this, I meant that we should confront a certain embarrassment concerning the human. One variety of such embarrassment is expressed in strident naturalism about philosophical explanation. Naturalisms of this sort seek to shift the locus of philosophical explanation, whether ontological or justificatory, to something more fundamental than the considerations given in everyday practices of explanation. For example, here I have in mind efforts to bring cognitive science to bear on moral psychology. Within many such debates, the ‘folk psychology’ possessed by normal agents is contrasted with the results of the modern psychological sciences, laden with the outcome of brain scans and other neurological research. The suggestion is that philosophy of mind ought to take off from these cutting edge results, which present us with the most accurate accounts of the mind available, rather than the messy self-understanding of ordinary agents which, although useful in practical situations, is often shot with delusions, simplification and convenient fictions. My reservations are not primarily directed at the cognitive sciences per se (and certainly not all forms of naturalism), only the thought that philosophical explanation must start from this point instead of the more familiar understanding of ourselves expressed in ordinary discourse. This is the conviction that, when it comes to philosophy, what we say when we chat with our friends, say, or the way that Sophocles characterises shame, leaves nothing out. In part, this conviction is founded upon a different way of approaching the tasks of philosophy.

If philosophy is to provide us with a maximally coherent account of how the world is, being a handmaiden to the sciences which works upon the more abstract and conceptual difficulties which they throw up, then the idea that it ought to accept the same reductive and naturalistic approach to explanation is much more palatable. That sort of activity may very well be a precondition of achieving the invaluable insights provided by science. Yet, I don’t think that attempts to reframe in this context traditional philosophical problems, concerning knowledge or practical deliberation, for example, are at all illuminating. This is because these problems are, predominantly, troubling in a different way to scientific problems. Once again, Wittgenstein expresses this idea well. In a heading of the ‘Big Typescript’, he writes: “DIFFICULTY OF PHILOSOPHY NOT THE INTELLECTUAL DIFFICULTY OF THE SCIENCES, BUT THE DIFFICULTY OF A CHANGE OF ATTITUDE. RESISTANCES OF THE WILL MUST BE OVERCOME.” He then goes to say, “Work on philosophy is – as work in architecture frequently is – actually more of a //a kind of// work on oneself. On one’s own conception. On the way one sees things. (And what one demands of them.)” (PO: 162-3) Without wanting to overgeneralise from these remarks, I think we can see within them a kind of schematic for philosophy. I shall now go on to say a little about how I propose we should think about philosophy, or at least one its central currents, and which connects this Wittgensteinian view with some which may seem like natural adversaries to it.

What might it mean to say that work on philosophy is work on oneself? Helpful here is a German term, important for understanding post-Kantian idealism, namely, Bildung. It can be translated variously as education, nurture, development, formation or culture. Such elasticity of meanings might serve to shroud rather than reveal the idea it seeks to capture though. In the Hegelian usage which I prefer, it can be taken to name a process of self-cultivation through which, in a struggle to understand who they are, someone achieves a more liberated mode of relating to themselves and therewith the world as a whole. This need not imply anything spooky is going on, nor that some imposing idealist apparatus is called upon. Instead, we might consider the sort of thing that happens in a Bildungsroman; the independence of maturity is achieved through the resolution of conflicts over the protagonist’s self-identity. Thought of in this way, we can contrast Bildung, qua self-directed process, with other ways of being developed or formed. As Allen Wood puts it, “the entire process of Bildung is fundamentally an inner or self-directed activity, never merely a process of conditioning through environmental stimuli, or the accumulation of information presented by experience.” (‘Hegel on Education’, p.4)

It is with this sort of understanding of Bildung in mind that I suggest we take up Wittgenstein’s idea that work on philosophy is work on oneself. Philosophy, practiced aright, does not seek to give us theories built upon our experience of the world (though it by no means operates independently of such experience), but nor does it counsel simply following the inclinations which we form just as inhabitants of the natural world. Instead, at least for the most part, it is about achieving a certain practical orientation towards ourselves, our fellows and the rest of the world. This practical orientation consists in both intellectual and affective sensitivity, and so it might be said to concern a way (or our ways) of seeing. Again, we might say that philosophy, so conceived, is irreducibly aesthetic, insofar as we adopt a broad understanding of the aesthetic. So characterised, the conception of philosophy I have outlined may seem either hopelessly broad and vague or intolerably strange and idiosyncratic. To make it more determinate, I shall point to two examples of what I take to be philosophy practiced in this vein. I’ve chosen to pick out Hegel and Nussbaum, though it may equally have been Aristotle, Adorno, Wittgenstein, McDowell, Anscombe or Marx.

Take Hegel to begin with. What we find in the Phenomenology is an analysis of a procession of forms of consciousness and forms of the world which are outgrowths of ordinary ways of looking at the world. The use (or embodiment) of the fundamental logical categories of particularity, universality and individuality within these forms shows them to be unstable, since none of them can overcome the difficulties of reconciling subject and object. Hegel’s aim is to lead us along a ‘pathway of despair’ (and therefore an intellectually and emotionally transformative narrative) which shows us how to recognise and begin to avoid these instabilities. The result is absolute knowing; not a megalomaniacal claim to comprehensive or divine knowledge, but a standpoint — a place from where to see the world — from where we can overcome the gulf between subject and object, as previously expressed as problems bridging mind and world, intention and action, inner and outer, and so on. Thus, the groundwork is laid for the task of re-cognising the phenomena previously encountered in our ordinary ways of seeing the world, critically reappraising and adjusting these ways of seeing such that we can come to an unalienated or homely (heimlich) relation to our world. Ultimately, for Hegel, philosophy is concerned with examining the concept, understanding the rational basis of things, and this redounds upon the rational being doing the examining, setting them free from the mere positivity of phenomena — being brutely confronted with them in their contingency, rather than grasping how they do and indeed must relate to oneself. But first one must learn how to look at the world rationally, where this is a long and difficult process fraught with as many practical and affective problems as cognitive ones, and which does not issue in a theory of everything but a mode of facing the world: not simply a set of propositions, but a practical way to confront it.

Nussbaum’s work is altogether more modest and it is undertaken in a rather different spirit. Nevertheless, there are important similarities which I would like to try and draw out. Again, there is a kind of aesthetic thread to be picked up — one that consists in cultivating a variety of perception, not in any empiricist or intuitionist sense but rather as a sensitivity to the world which takes the form of a kind of practical knowledge or phronesis. We see this method deployed brilliantly in The Fragility of Goodness. In it, Nussbaum undertakes a forensic analysis of the details of Greek philosophy and tragedy which she brings to bear upon questions of moral luck, tragic conflict and practical deliberation. What makes the book so great as philosophy, rather than simply historical scholarship, is how it manages to draw so much sustenance from the literature it considers whilst putting its ideas to work in providing vivid ‘reminders’ and ‘objects of comparison’ (to resort to Wittgesteinian terminology) with which to illuminate our ethical lives. Its approach to literature is deeply philosophical; and conversely too, with its philosophical proclivities being similarly literary. This is another example of what I have been calling philosophical humanism: a confidence in the narratives we tell about ourselves and what matters to us. Of course, we need (and ought) not take all these stories at face value, but an underlying trust in our ability to capture the fundamentals of life in the mainstays of human activity is on display here. Art, whether individually or collectively, can be contextualised and historicised, subjected to evolutionary adaptionist explanation, Ideologiekritik, and so on, but none of these things can explain it away as a whole such that it loses its respectability as a philosophical resource. Artistic activity retains its legitimacy as a tool for providing genuine, first-rate knowledge of truths about value, the mind, action, emotion — about human life in general — and insofar as it does, we must again question the rush to those reductionist accounts predicated upon an uneasiness with the merely human.